Elmore Leonard passed away recently. It’s sad because he was among the greatest American writers of all time and because he was one of my personal favorite crime writers. But it’s also sad because, even though he was pretty old, he was still churning out books and they were still amazing. Raylan came out last year and Leonard (who has been writing since the Fifties) was able to throw down a Lady Gaga reference that made perfect sense. This was a guy whose writing stayed vital and modern, or maybe beyond modern thanks to his revolutionary grammatically incorrect prose style, no matter how old he got. I used to think that he would never die, but would just keep aging and churning out great books.
I can’t write a proper tribute to the man. My skills as a critic just aren’t up to the task. Instead, I’m going to do a bit of a retrospective. I’ll talk about each of the Leonard books I’ve read and maybe a thought about why I liked them so much. I’ll start with the first Leonard book I’ve ever read — 2005’s The Hot Kid. I picked this one up in an airport on a whim after Garth Ennis name-checked Elmore Leonard as a joke from Irish vampire Cassidy in the seminal comic book series, Preacher. I figured that, if Ennis (and Cassidy) liked Leonard, he must be pretty good. Cassidy was right about the film Breaker Morant too. So I picked up the book, started it on the plane and loved it beyond imagining.
The Hot Kid had the advantage of taking place in a time and place that I love — the Great Depression Era Midwest. The protagonist is Carl Webster, who goes from working on his father’s pecan farm to becoming a topnotch US Marshal and taking on the worst of the Public Enemy Era. Leonard likes Marshals a lot. Karen Sisco and Raylan Givens are both Marshals, for instance. I think Leonard likes the immediacy of Marshals. They don’t sit around in vans doing surveillance like the FBI. They’re not concerned about one particular crime like the DEA or the ATF. They go after criminals, hunting fugitives and getting into scrapes and adventures. I’m not sure if real Federal Marshals do that, but it’s a fun fantasy nonetheless.
Webster is also the son of a character from Cuba Libre, which is about the Spanish American War and will be something I’ll have to cover later. Because Webster is half-Cuban, he faces prejudice and has to change his name. This is another reason why Leonard’s great — he always captures the ugliness of American history. The corruption of the 1930s, with Kansas City practically being an outlaw fiefdom, and the Klan eager for lynching everyone different all make appearances in The Hot Kid. America in the past — and probably in the present — isn’t a nice place and Leonard digs into that nastiness. He doesn’t exactly revel in it like James Ellroy does, but he still shows that while 1930s America is fun to visit, you probably wouldn’t want to stay there for too long.
Leonard’s also really good at portraying masculinity and the unending desire to look cool. ‘Looking cool’ — as in staying in charge, appearing dangerous and keeping your composure — is a major motivation for a lot of Leonard’s male characters. They have pride and when they feel it’s being insulted, they go for their guns. It leads to people dying for stupid reasons and people dying rather than looking lame seems like a very down-to-earth source of violence that’s more realistic than people dying for vengeance or greed or just cruelty. I’ve seen a lot of ego-caused violence in fiction lately. The Sopranos did if often enough and Breaking Bad pulled it off very well recently too. As far as I know, Leonard was the first one to show this and another reason that, while his dialogue is far too cool to be realistic, his books still provide an excellent look at the human condition.
I’ll close by saying this — when the plane went up, I had never read any Leonard. When it touched down, I was a lifelong fan. Get The Hot Kid. You will enjoy it.